Student Agency in NE classroom

As part of our CoL focus from our Theory of Improvement, we have been analysing what student agency means across classrooms, ages and teachers. It got me thinking about what specifically I do with my NEs to give them a sense of control in their learning. I thought it would be useful to summarise it here and reflect upon.

Choice – I give my NEs as much choice as possible – what they want to play, what topic they want to base their play on, what story they want to hear, what independent activities they do, what kind of brain break we have, etc.

Student Agency in Play – I don’t come with any plans for the play session, unless something has been discussed the day before that they have an interest in doing. We generally go with the flow, and if someone has brought something interesting to school, we often base our play around it. For example, one student brought ‘Whiskers’ his toy rabbit in and said it was his 5th birthday and I asked about what Whiskers likes to eat. He said carrots and asked if we could make carrots for his birthday! We grabbed orange and green card and we set about making carrots (for PBL, I do some modelling of the activity and the students run with it and make it bigger). I made the first carrot, showing how I could create curly leaves with the scissors, and they were off! What resulted was and hour of craft, fine motor skills, imaginary play and lots of conversation!

Student Agency in Reading – for a long time, I’ve given my students a choice in what book they choose for guided reading and this works so well for my NE class. We all go to the resource room and I give each group the levelled box of books to choose from. It’s up to each group to decide how to choose the book –  i.e. some take turns, so it’s A’s turn on Monday, then B’s turn on Wednesday, etc. Others just seem to get on and agree pretty quickly, others do rock paper scissors. There are rarely arguments and if there are I just instruct them to sort it out themselves otherwise I choose. I’ve not had to choose yet! This also results in high interest in their book, as it was their choice. Funnily enough, even when there’s only one book left in the box they haven’t read, they quite happily grab it, as they say to me ‘we’ll have this one, as this is the only one we haven’t read yet’ and all seems well! During the actual reading session, if one seems a bit switched off (tired, distracted, etc), I let them join in in their own time rather than lots of pushing, as some of them need a little warm-up/confidence builder of hearing others in the group start reading, then before you know it, they’re joining in too.

Student Agency in Writing – 90% of the time, what they write about is entirely their choice. If they’re stuck for an idea, we talk about what they played that morning and that normally sparks an enthusiastic response. I also let them choose their goals – we have little goal cards ranging from finger spaces, first sound, capital letter and full stops, etc. They will choose which one they want to focus on. If there’s something specific that in my opinion they need to focus on, we look back at a previous piece of writing and I ask them ‘did you use your sounds?’, ‘did you use finger spaces?’. By asking my questions carefully, they can be steered into choosing the goal they really need to focus on, but still feeling that they chose it themselves. Lots of praise always given for identifying their own goal.

Student Agency in Maths – I find maths can be a little trickier, as there is always lots you know they need to know, but they don’t know what they need to know or why (other than saying ‘this will help your maths when you get older’!). They choose the maths songs they want to start the session with, then if we’re playing maths games, I let the ones who want to play it first come and play it first (regardless of ability – no ability grouping here!). The rest if they weren’t so interested in the game initially, soon are when they hear all the fun we’re having, then they choose to come next. If there’s anyone left at the end who really didn’t want to play, that’s ok, I know that they will either need to have a go tomorrow, or I can find a way of teaching the skill/concept in another way they are more interested in. Quite a lot of Maths is taught through Play Based conversations, the most obvious recent one is the shop we set up. Each ‘customer’ got $10 note, the shopkeeper had $1 coins for change, then bingo, we were doing pairs to 10 in a fun and meaningful context which they really enjoyed. Little light bulbs came on as I mentioned ‘oh, it’s like our pairs to 10 song’ and they were away!


Play Based Learning End of Term 3

Well, my last post discussed the challenge I’m facing of maintaining the play-based programme with a bigger class, while still getting through the necessary Reading, Writing and Maths.

My idea was to keep the play-based programme in the morning, with Reading, then Writing in the mid-morning session, followed by Maths after lunch.

This is actually working out well, but I’ve had to make some compromises. I have had to challenge my thoughts around teaching every reading group every day and teaching writing groups every day. What I’m doing is looking at the big picture over the course of a week. For example, one week, if we’ve had a really good solid set of reading sessions every day, but writing has gone by the wayside a little, I don’t stress and just make writing the focus the following week. The students still read and write every day (independent/buddy reading and free writing), which they are motivated to do using their ‘must do/can do’ chart (which, by the way, the set up each day themselves!).

Maths tends to happen throughout the day, especially during play-based where it’s fed into the conversation a lot. We’ve had a few topic specific sessions in the afternoons, and I’m blending strand with number throughout the day, rather than having a focus on something each week (i.e. basic facts or fractions). I have a focus based on what we’ve covered so far and what still needs to be explored, but for them it’s a seamless (hopefully!) blend of all in context.

So far, so good with PBL and a bigger class!

Play Based Learning update

So, my NE class size has now grown from 4 at the start of the year to 13, still a nice number, but the dynamics for learning have now changed as there is obviously a broader range of abilities as the NEs have arrived throughout the year. I was managing to do PBL in the morning, then fit reading, maths and writing into the two hour block between morning tea and lunchtime (maths happening throughout the day too – songs and conversation), then Key Competency focussed learning in the afternoon.

Now I find I can’t fit all my reading groups and have everyone writing in the two hour block (along with the mindfulness session and brain break session – two non-negotiables for us).

I REALLY want to maintain the play based learning in the morning, as it sets them up really well for the day and often provides material for writing later on. Also, to get the most out of play, research shows that learning happens when conversation, etc is being extended by an adult, so I can’t take groups while the rest are playing.


Short term I will be turning the afternoons into maths afternoons, keeping it focussed and with lots of materials. Today went ok, but the children are all very tired with lots of bugs around (5 away today!), so we shall have to see how that goes when they are at full strength again.

Long term, and looking into next year, I would like to explore team teaching with my fellow Junior Teacher. I am hoping to keep my same class next year, as I have an autistic student starting in Term 4, and would like to continue with this student into next year to save him going through another transition to another teacher. My thinking is that myself and the other Junior teacher could team teach NE/Year 1s. This way, as modelled by another school I visited, one of us is ‘roving’ and supporting the play based learning, while the other one starts on reading groups first thing in the morning.

Summary – I am at the stage where I’m struggling to maintain play based learning with the pressure of ‘getting through the 3Rs’, so it’s figuring out how to maintain PBL while ticking the necessary boxes!

Play Based Learning – Numeracy

So, since the first NEs starting in Term 1, I have used a play based learning programme. I have kept a more formal reading programme going, with guided groups, and also guided writing. We also do a formal phonics programme (I use Jolly Phonics – very successful). However, for maths, I probably do at most one or two traditional group maths sessions per week. I integrate a lot of maths discussion into the daily play based session, and take advantage of any numbers we come across.

Example: when we go up to get new reading books, there’s a hopscotch that they have to wait on. They initially had to choose a number to stand on, which we discussed, supporting their digit identification. They now stand on two numbers and add them together.

I base this on the research I’ve read around building connections and making things relevant, authentic, meaningful and fun. However, it has been a bit of a leap of faith moving away from traditional group rotations every day for maths, so I carried out a JAM assessment at the end of Term 2 and compared the results with the start of Term 1 JAM assessments to see the progress (if any!) made. I was pretty bowled over – most students had moved up a stage or two in the number sections, and if they didn’t move up, from my notes I could see that their thinking and strategies were developing. The most pronounced is of a student who had little/no number knowledge and struggled to count 1:1 with even small numbers (could normally cope with up to 4 objects). This student counted up to 9, then up to 16 objects with deliberate, perfect 1:1 correspondence, then in front of my excited eyes, shared 12 beans evenly over a quartered circle!

Considering they’ve had little ‘formal, traditional’ teaching of maths, they have made pretty much the same progress I’ve seen my previous NE students make with a formal Monday- Friday group rotation! I am pretty excited that I now have some evidence that backs up the research I’ve based my programme on, as I am a teacher who loves teaching maths, and this was quite a leap of faith for me!

My next step is to take my identified next steps for each student and integrate that into play based learning, especially as moving into stage 3/4 there are more areas that need explicit teaching. Not sure how, but will have a go at integrating this!

Play Based Learning Support

This week, I asked one of our teacher aides to pop in one morning to lead the PBL session. She is experienced with the early years, and I wanted some support in how to facilitate and direct the play sessions for the students to gain the most out of it. I observed her interacting with one group of students. They sat on the floor together and played with a cardboard box. It quickly became a house, then a shop and they spent the next 45 minutes or so making things out of paper, card and tape for it. The main things I got from this observation were:

  • Actually play with them – don’t just observe and ask questions, actually get onto their level on the floor and play with them.
  • Ask open ended questions, e.g. ‘what do you see in a shop?’, ‘what do you do in a shop?’, ‘what can you buy in a shop?’
  • Create things with them – they will copy an modify what you are doing.

I had a go at this during the rest of the week (construction theme), and we made a shoe rack for the classroom. I took the lead in making it, but following its construction, the students started making their own things, by copying what I’d been doing – measuring, marking, cutting, helping each other hold things, etc.

What next?

I want to explore providing thoughtful provocations for play. This has happened haphazardly these last few weeks with themed tables – slime table, craft table, science table and this last week being construction week.

I am also visiting a local Kindergarten to spend the morning observing the teachers supporting the play based learning.

Te Reo in New Entrant Class

I am UK trained and began teaching in NZ 5 years ago. I speak some Welsh after growing up in Wales, so appreciate the need to support a language that has the potential to disappear if it is not used.

I am very much in the basics stage of learning Te Reo myself and languages do not come easily to me, I lack some confidence in this area. So I am pushing myself to learn alongside my students (so the fact I have a New Entrant class is very appropriate!). In this post, I am going to start logging my own Te Reo journey and what I’m doing in class with my little ones.

A couple of my NEs have more Te Reo than I do, so an important start place is to build an understanding that we are all learning this and I enjoy learning from them. Here is a list of things we do daily/weekly in class:

  • Greetings/farewells – I greet them each morning with ‘Tena koutou tamariki ma’ and they respond with ‘Tena koe’. We say ‘kia ora’ during the roll, and at the end of the day we say ‘Ka kite ano’.
  • We say a karakia at the end of the day (we have one for the start of the day too, but I forget this most days with all the business at the start!).
  • numbers for our daily calendar – I can now count beyond 10 in Te Reo and the students are learning to count to 10 and beyond.
  • colours – we play a colour game where I call out a colour in Te Reo and they have to point to it (or stand on it on the tiger turf). I want to make a colour bingo set to add another game to this.
  • body parts – we play a game to learn the names of different body parts (head, shoulders, ears, nose, mouth).
  • commands – we use e noho, e tu, titiro mai, whakarango mai, haere mae, haere atu.

Next steps/thoughts:

I would like to sing more waiata in class. The children sing songs in kapa haka and assembly, but I don’t know them very well myself yet. If we sang them in class too, it would benefit us all.

Focus for Term 2 is the classroom, so we will gradually label different aspects of the classroom each day, turning it into a game. The important thing for me is to ensure I am truly learning alongside the students – I must make sure I am working to remember the new vocabulary too (e.g. as opposed to reading off a sheet each time!).

Play-Based Learning Visits

I managed to organise a group of us (13 teachers in total), to visit 2 schools who are running a play-based programme in their New Entrant classes. Here are my observations and learning from each school:

School 1 – 6 months into running programme

Organisation – 2 NE classes, both using a double space, with their teachers team teaching. In the morning before interval, the children free played with a teacher roving. Their role was to facilitate and stretch discussion around what the children were doing. They also took photos and created a learning journal that consisted of one A3 page with photos, descriptions and curriculum links. The second teacher took reading groups during this time. The children had cards saying ‘I’m coming back to this’ if they had to leave a play activity for reading. After interval, they went to single cell class set up for literacy and maths.

School 2 – 2 years into running programme

Organisation – 2 NE classes, using a large space of 3 interconnected rooms. 2 teachers team teaching. The children took part in a range of play activities all day, with timetabled workshops for phonics and letter formation in particular. They also did guided reading. Maths and writing were taught through conversations during play. Tracking sheets were used to record what children knew in writing and maths and what their next steps were. The teacher facilitating the conversation had these tracking sheets on clipboards and brought the conversation round to extend the children into their next steps. The teacher showing us around gave examples of authentic writing opportunities – ‘one boy wanted a hole in a plastic bottle for something he was making, so he asked to write a letter asking the caretaker to drill a hole for him’. The writing came from the need, purpose and audience, rather than the other way around.

Main points from the visit

  • Need adult to facilitate discussion during play – team teaching was the way to do this, 1 teacher running workshops, other teacher roving and facilitating conversation with groups playing.
  • Roving teacher photographed play and created learning story page for each week, describing play activities and linking to curriculum areas and achievement objectives.
  • Displays on the wall served as reminders and prompts for teachers facilitating discussion, as much if not more so than for the children’s benefit.
  • Tracking is vital – especially for maths learning that happened solely during conversations initiated through their play – children would each have a sheet that showed what they knew and what their next steps were, the teacher carried this on a clipboard so could direct and facilitate conversation around their next steps.

Afternoon discussion

The 13 of us discussed what we were each doing in our schools and something we had taken from what we’d observed that morning. The plan is to keep the PBL group going throughout the year, with more visits and PD.

Boys’ Transition to School PD

I went to an evening course led by Warwick Pudney (relationship therapist and social ecologist who has spent the last 25 years working with men, couples and families in New Zealand), who based on his many years of experience has concerns over our education systems not being geared up to suit boys. He (very respectfully!) talked about the fact that education in the early years and into primary school is female dominated and therefore, are we building systems that favour education of girls over boys.

He also suggested that the fact alone that boys’ achievement is statistically different to girls, makes it worth looking at, on top of the fact that boys’ schools do better for boys and girls’ schools do better for girls.

We spent the first part of the evening identifying our thoughts around differences between boys and girls:

Boys are more (generalising):

  • Active
  • Competitive
  • Impulsive
  • Black and white
  • Hands on
  • Curious
  • Don’t hold grudges
  • Rough
  • Concrete
  • Team
  • Risk takers

Generalising again – Men tend to like logical thinking, step by step, with a defined ending, hence enjoying sports games with a defined ending win/lose situation. Women tend to like soap operas that centre of ever evolving social situations and dilemmas, with no true, defined ending.

Therefore, in education, we concluded that boys like to finish things, so if told to come away from something they had not yet finished to their satisfaction (if engaged in it), could cause issues. Boys therefore need some sense of completion.

Boys need a real purpose to give them drive for the activity – therefore find a boys’ reason for reading and writing. Boys will benefit from having males role model reading and writing, so bring fathers in to read stories to the class, have a fathers’ lunch.

Boys benefit from security and order (i.e. rules for stability). Boys need to know:

  • Who is the boss?
  • What are the rules?
  • What are the consequences?
  • These all need to be black and white, grey areas = you can’t be trusted.

Boys also enjoy the ritual of a transition, e.g. boy to man rite of passage rituals in many cultures. The thinking behind this is that the ritual creates a jolt from one to another, helping to adjust mindset.

Now, a lot of this is obviously generalising, but it helped me make a shift in my thinking towards how I support my New Entrant boys in their transition to school. This are the key areas I reflected on and actively instilled in my class:

Security and order

I immediately used the 3 things boys need to know ‘Who’s the boss, What are the rules and What are the consequences?’ This had a big impact straight away, as I’ve been exploring a play-based programme with more student agency and free choice. This worked well in some parts, but left times of transition in the day as potential arguments. But, by laying these 3 things down firmly, I straight away gained more respect as their teacher and less arguments when they were asked to come for reading, etc.


Warwick also spoke of one thing that can hold even the most hyper boy’s attention more than most things – computer games, as they tick all the boxes for what boys like – action, rewards, defined tasks with beginning and end, competitive, etc. So, I decided to ‘gamify’ my reading programme. I built a chart on the wall with the reading levels, matched with ‘bosses’ to defeat, ‘power ups’ to use and clear instructions on how to defeat each boss. Worked a treat. (Next step is how to manage their competitiveness in order to avoid putting each other down if they see someone isn’t moving up the chart as fast – probably talk about the need to be competitive with themselves, not each other).

Get used to them!

Boys are noisy, messy, rough and competitive. If I am to truly create an environment that empathises and embraces what boys are, I need to be ok with these things! I’m pretty tom-boyish myself, but even me, at times, found the rough play, noise and mess too much! So, whenever I feel it’s too much, before I ask them to stop, I pause and ask myself ‘why?’ If the answer is only to suit my own needs, I aim to join in and facilitate or ‘referee’ the play, using it as an opportunity for social learning instead. Or I just let it continue! Only if the answer is that it is affecting the respect of or well being of other students do I actually ask them to stop.

Writing Programme

Give them real, authentic purpose to their writing. We write captions for photos I’ve taken of them at play, so they have lots of oral language available and they can record what they’ve been doing. We wrote captions for their family trees. This was not something they saw as ‘writing’, but a necessary part of completing their poster.

Next steps – see how this structure and programme works for New Entrant girls – will they cope better with freedom of choice? Will they negotiate more with language?

Play based learning update – week 8

So, I’ve been battling over the last 4/5 weeks to integrate play based learning into the classroom. My big question now is how to tie in the 3 Rs with this, as I still have the obligation to get these NEs progressing through reading, writing and maths. The main breakthrough I’ve had is that all their writing comes from photos I’ve taken of their play that morning, they are always keen to stick their photo in and write a sentence about it. At this stage, they are focussing on a range of individual goals, varying from writing left to write, pen holding, finger spaces and using the first sound of a word. The challenge I’ve found now is how to integrate maths and reading into this. The reading programme by it’s nature is quite rigid anyway, but to try and get reading material that ties in with what they were playing that morning is challenging. They choose their own books from the levelled box I give them, but beyond that, choice is limited. Also with maths, I can find tenuous links to the play task that morning, i.e. if they’ve been playing with pirate toys, we can count and add the gold coins, etc. but it’s pretty limiting. Contrary to previous experience, the children are very engaged in writing, but not so much in reading and even less so in maths!

Because of this, I very much feel at risk of slipping back into a very timetabled structured day where maths, reading and writing happen when I say they happen, but I so desperately want to take more advantage of this rich learning I can see happening infront of my eyes during their play based time.

However, I feel all is not lost, as during this time of experimentation, I have focussed in on several questions to direct my experimentation:

  1. How do I integrate curriculum coverage into play based learning?
  2. How do I tie a rigid structured programme like reading into their play?
  3. Is it possible to teach the requirements of maths through ad-hoc opportunities throughout the day, instead of a formal maths session?
  4. How do I expand this learning into a larger class setting? I have the most incredible experience at present of having a class size of 6, so want to ensure that what I’m doing with 6, is transferrable and achievable with more.

In chatting with a Principal who is supporting her Junior Teaching staff with developing a play based programme, she mentioned they were calling it ‘Pataitai’ – which means to explore and discover. This is with the aim of getting away from negative connotations that ‘play’ might have at school. I’m in two minds over this – I WANT people/parents/community to know that PLAY is where children experience all this rich learning, so maybe I should stick with calling it play. Something to think about. But, on this train of thought, I came across this: that talks about Pataitai stations for exploring and discovery. I need to read it in more detail, but it doesn’t seem to be as ‘free’ as genuine free play, as stations are engineered carefully for the learning that is required. Another thing to explore.

My next steps are to take my questions and visit other schools who are running this kind of play based learning programme in their Junior areas and observe and have a good chat. I am organising for me and a group of other teachers to do so in the next couple of weeks.

Play-Based Breakthrough!! – Week 3

Well, I finally experienced a snippet of what this play based learning might be about. My difficulty as a teacher is trying to figure out where I fit into this play – I’ve been observing, asking questions, commenting and steering, but it has all seemed rather contrived. I’ve felt like reverting to old style teaching, by saying, “right, time for maths” basically asking them to stop what they were doing to come and do something that ‘teacher needs them to do’, then they can go back to the fun stuff!

Well, I was trying to figure out a fun, physical, boy targeted way of learning digit formation. So I armed them with paper cups, paintbrushes and a 1-10 number line. I showed them how they could paint with water on the hot asphalt on the court. They had great fun for about 5 minutes, then I felt they were beginning to lose interest. At this point, one of them spilled his water. Part of me wanted to berate him and tell him to fill his cup up again and be more careful, but I hung fire and instead, we talked about the pattern it made and the fact you couldn’t see his numbers anymore. This developed into all 4 of them spilling their water on purpose and making patterns.

To cut a long story short, this turned into pouring water down a gutter that ran next to the court, then trying to float their pirate ships in it. They were annoyed, because the water kept going down the drain and they couldn’t keep it flowing. One suggested they build a wall at the end of the gutter. So I said ‘yes, see what you can find to build the wall’. They came out with various things to try and one brought out the tub of play dough we’d made the day before. He tried to use the whole tub, but the water flowed under it, so I said they could use the play dough if they wanted. Between the four of them, they built a wall, testing it several times as they went. Eventually success, resulting in a big pool of water to float their ships in, with lots of talking. One even picked up the transparent play dough tub, pushed it into the water and said ‘look, you can see underwater’.

My role in all of this was to say yes, and speak words of encouragement, and observe. I took photos as they went, then after morning tea, they chose a photo to stick in their book and write a caption for. With very little encouragement, all 4 boys ‘wrote’ (still emergent), and received huge praise for doing so, one even saying ‘I’m going to keep writing so I can be a good writer’! The motivation and engagement in this activity off the back of the exploratory and problem solving play that morning was astounding.

Next focus – try to continue to replicate this and figure out how to get a smooth link to curriculum coverage. Off the back of this pirate interest, we are having a pirate themed week next week, so I shall see how much of the 3Rs I can sneak in!!